The ugly side of Capetown through the eyes of a gay asylum-seeker
While many flocked into South Africa for the World Cup and job opportunities, his only reason was to seek protection from persecution by his family and the wider society back home.
When he fled from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2010, hoping to start a new life away from the people baying for his blood, he did not envisage the anguish and terror that was to befall him. He endured discrimination at the refugee camp in Capetown, then suffered an attempted rape by a police officer and a brutal assault by a homophobic man.
Such is the plight of Junior Mayema, 25, a gay man seeking refuge in South Africa. Although neither his native country nor his country of refuge is one of the 76-plus countries with laws against homosexual activity, both are inhospitable to LGBT people. He says:
I arrived here in January 2010. The situation in my country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, was terrible. I was under threat from both family and society. I fled. I had read about South Africa having the best constitution protecting LGBT rights and I [thought] I would be safe here.
Mayema’s story of his ordeal is a tale of the difficulties of life for a gay foreigner in a country that is both homophobic and xenophobic. From the get-go, he says, his life in South Africa has been hard:
When I arrived at the Capetown refugee camp, I got the shock of my life as reality sank in. I was treated badly. The officers were discriminatory. They made fun of my case, arguing that they did not know gay people existed in DRC.
Although I applied for refugee status on grounds of sexual orientation, that was completely ignored. The authorities only gave me a temporary permit that I have to extend every three or six months. If I fail to renew it, I will be deported back to danger in DRC. The argument for giving me a three-month permit is that being LGBT is not a special ground for one to get refugee status.
I did not get financial or any other support besides accommodation at the camps, where there is homophobia and discrimination from officers and other refugees.
Commenting on the future, he tells of his fears for how he will fare in South Africa’s asylum process:
The future looks grim, because this country is trying to shrink the numbers of refugees. They have already lowered the numbers of asylum seekers. I fear the next target will be those of us who want an extension of our permit, and those without papers. They may just deny your renewal of the permit. Then you are considered an illegal in the country who must be deported back to danger, in my case.
He says the situation is especially hard for transgender refugees, who face hellish difficulties both when they seek employment and when they register at the home office:
I am a gender non-conforming person although currently I am still in the process of transitioning. I prefer being identified as gay. However I feel for my fellow transgender friends who, whenever they have to go to home office, are struck by harsh reality.
At home affairs, there are only two queues — men and women. There is a confusion especially if you are transgender. You will be forced to identify with a gender which you do not conform with.
Looking for employment is very challenging as people are discriminatory, especially if you are an asylum- seeker and LGBT.
What riles him the most, he says, is that because he does not have a recognized status yet, he cannot continue his schooling and feels he is adrift:
I was studying law in the DRC. I didn’t finish my studies. When I fled the country I was in my second year. In as much as I want to pursue my studies here, I am finding it very difficult. It’s worse even to establish one’s self because I only have a short-stay permit, meaning my life has been on hold for the last three years.
Mayema says he has suffered much anti-gay violence:
About a year ago while in a bar, a police officer who knew that I was gay followed me to the toilet, where he attempted to rape me. I had to be rescued by some people in the bar.
I reported the matter to the police that an officer had attempted to rape me. They made fun of me because I was the gay one and they did not do anything about the case. Instead they made homophobic remarks.
When a man attacked me in the street with clenched fists and I was badly hurt, no one came to my rescue. I had to flee. When I reported to the police, they just filed the case. The man was not arrested. No follow-up was made, maybe because he is South African and I am not.
Other foreign nationals who are in Capetown have also compounded the situation, as they tend to be very homophobic, he says:
The Congolese people here are the most homophobic. They say I am a disgrace to the DRC. I have also heard other LGBT refugees complain that they are treated badly by people from their home countries here as well.
He also says that in townships where he often visited friends, people were violent and made rude remarks about him as a gay foreigner. Finding a suitable place to live has also been difficult, because landlords are often strict and anti-gay.
“When my landlord learned that I was gay,” Mayema says, “he gave me an ultimatum — either only female visitors or I leave his place.”
As an LGBT rights activist, Mayema has found comfort in working with the organisation People Against Suffering Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP), which fights for the rights of asylum-seekers, refugees and immigrants in South Africa. He is a volunteer in an LGBT project.
“This work helps empower me to help myself and others,” he says.
As South Africa marks the 19th anniversary of its first post-apartheid elections (Freedom Day, April 27), one can only hope that its citizens will take heed of the words of its inspirational former leader, Nelson Mandela: “To be free is not only merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. ”
For more information, see the regulations implementing the South African Refugees Act.